The Oak Park Residence Corporation’s proposal to build a 6-story, net-zero, residential complex at 7 Van Buren St. narrowly made it through the Oak Park Plan Commission process, Dec. 16. With four commissioners in favor of the project and three against, the decision came down to Chair Iris Sims, whose vote secured the majority, 5-3. Commissioner Jeff Foster was absent. A tie vote would have resulted in a negative recommendation to the Oak Park Village Board.
Sims’ affirmative vote came despite expressing apprehension with the project throughout the meeting. She said she was “really troubled” that the 45-unit building was in a residential area, rather than near Harrison Street, which has gas stations and numerous businesses.
The Residence Corporation’s efforts to make the building sustainable and its commitment to keep rent affordable were “admirable” qualities, she said, but such buildings “are supposed be balanced with the neighborhood.” She worried the proposal failed to satisfy provisions laid out in the village’s comprehensive plan, sizeable excerpts of which Sims read aloud.
“What troubles me is that I don’t know if the applicant has really focused on the provisions of the comprehensive plan [that] I just read in a way that is beneficial to the surrounding neighborhood,” said Sims.
She believed the building’s affordability and its net-zero status are beneficial, but not in the context of the wider comprehensive plan. She asked David Pope, executive director of the Residence Corporation, to explain how the building will add value to the neighborhood.
“I don’t want to hear about, ‘This is a great net-zero project; it’s trendsetting,’ et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” she said.
Pope told Sims that Oak Park has economically integrated neighborhoods with different housing types, making it a unique community. The building planned for 7 Van Buren enhances that, he said, because it brings in “new types of housing stock,” in particular, accessible housing.
The former village president added that the building’s high density would spur retail development in the area. That investment, according to Pope, is a benefit to everyone who lives nearby.
Like Sims, Commissioner Paul Beckwith was on the fence at the beginning of the meeting. He told his fellow commissioners he was weighing his decision on two questions: “Is this the right building for Oak Park?” and “What’s going to happen if we turn this thing down?”
Beckwith eventually voted in favor of the project.
Commissioner Lawrence Brozek was hung up on the building’s parking plan, citing downtown structures’ struggle to accommodate residents’ cars. He thought the building should have more than 17 available spots, despite numerous letters from neighbors saying the area could support permit parking. The latter viewpoint was supplemented by a letter from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which stated that the demand for parking was in line with what OPRC projected.
However, neither the study nor the accounts from neighbors satisfied Brozek. He reinforced his stance by pointing out that grocery shopping would be difficult for the building’s residents who do not have cars, due to the building being located in a primarily residential area.
“The lack of urban necessities is going to drive up the need for parking for this building,” Brozek said.
He called the proposal “very detrimental to the area” as “parking is distressed right now.”
“I don’t think this is the right fit for this location,” he concluded.
Echoing Sims, Commissioner Jeff Clark thought the efforts to make the building sustainable and accessible are “noble” pursuits, but the details regarding the project’s functionality concerned him. He was disappointed in the building’s lack of a trash chute and storage room for bicycles.
Commissioner Jon Hale thought trash chutes, delivery vehicles and bicycle storage are “small concerns” relative to the project’s benefits, while Commissioner Paul May called them “valid” issues in need of resolution.
Hale warned against “letting perfect be the enemy of the good.”
He, Beckwith, Clark and Commissioner Nick Bridge voted in favor of the project while Brozek, May and Commissioner Tom Gallagher voted against it. After much consideration, Sims cast an affirmative vote and the motion to recommend the village board approve the proposed development at 7 Van Buren St. passed 5-3. The motion to approve the vacation of a portion of Van Buren Street passed 6-2. Unlike May and Gallagher, Brozek voted in favor of the vacation.